He may have recently added a few massively popular video games to his impressive resume, but ASCAP composer Gordy Haab isn’t just playing around. Haab’s score for the multiplayer online RPG Star Wars: The Old Republic recently earned "Best Original Soundtrack" and "Best Instrumental Music" at the 10th Annual Game Audio Network Guild Awards; his music for the new Kinect: Star Wars game has the same dramatic, fully orchestral sweep of John Williams’s scores from the original Star Wars films. Haab is part of a new breed of composers, well-educated in traditional scoring practices but applying them well beyond the realms of film and television. I spoke with Haab about his Star Wars music and the evolution of video game music.
You were writing for film and TV for years before you got your first video game gig. What prompted the switch?
I still do write for film and TV - film in particular, so I’d call it less of a switch to games than an addition of games. In fact, I’d say that it was my early work in film that prompted my first game score. Years ago, a short Star Wars fan film I’d co-scored, called Ryan vs. Dorkman II, was met with much success online. Among its millions of fans were some folks at LucasArts. In particular, Jesse Harlin - a composer working in the audio department at LucasArts, and a good friend of mine from USC. The timing was perfect, as they were looking for someone to score a new game, Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings. I feel it was my friendship with Jesse that afforded me the opportunity to audition, and the music from RVD2 that won the job. Some say luck is "opportunity meeting preparation" - so the short answer is: It was luck.
Did your approach or process for Kinect: Star Wars differ at all from the process for Star Wars: The Old Republic?
Definitely. With Star Wars: The Old Republic, we approached the music from much more of an emotional perspective. There was certainly "action" music, but a majority of the score was written to enhance the drama associated with dialogue, story, characters, planets, etc. So in some ways (although it didn’t feel like it at the time) it was a little easier to write. At least from a technical standpoint. Kinect: Star Wars is a much different game in that it focuses more on competitive action - races, chases, battles and even destroying villages as a Rancor. So the score was almost all high-energy action music. I probably don’t need to say it, assuming many of your readers are composers, but that stuff is hard to write! Add to that a relatively short composing schedule, and a cue list of about two hours of music...
In a game like Kinect: Star Wars, the action during a certain segment might change each time the game is played, but your music still has to work just as well. How do you adapt your scoring to fit in an open-ended gaming environment like that?
It’s tricky. This is certainly one of the aspects of game music that differs from film. And there are quite a few ways to approach this. In Kinect: Star Wars, the approach was to write numerous versions of a given cue. For instance, the main cue for a section of gameplay would be the longest, most developed piece of music - written so that it could seamlessly loop upon itself. But we’d also have two or three other versions of the cue, composed to be more or less "intense" than the main version. So if the action diminished, the system would crossfade into the less intense version. If action increased, it’d cut to the more intense version, and so on. To add to this, occasionally we’d have a "likely to win" and a "likely to lose" version of the cue. So if for example, you’re podracing, and in the last lap you will likely lose the race, the music would inject a sense of urgency or doom. There would also be alternate "endings." Again as an example, in podracing, once you cross the finish line, an ending fanfare would play. And there were numerous fanfares written to accompany which place you finished in, first place being the most triumphant, etc. The hard part about all this was adhering to these guidelines while writing in the style of John Williams. I suppose it’d be easier to loop back to the beginning if tempi never changed and I was in D minor for the whole cue. But in this style of music, I’m changing keys, meters, etc. almost every three or four bars. So the challenge is to transition your ending to lead to your beginning - trickier than it may sound.
I heard you went to great lengths to make sure that the music for Kinect honored the spirit and sound of the original John Williams score. Can you talk a bit about how you paid homage to him?
I’m a huge fan of John Williams’s music, so it was important for me to stay in keeping with the sound of the original scores I grew up with. Writing music in this style has always come somewhat naturally to me - likely because it’s such an integral part of my musical upbringing. But it still required quite a bit of study. In order for me to truly control the outcome of the music, I felt it was important to let go of as few aspects of the process as possible. So not only did I compose it, I orchestrated it as well. And all with pencil and paper, as Williams would do (which is how I’ve always worked anyway). To further meet the sound of the original scores, I wanted to match the production and performance as much as possible. To accomplish this, we recorded the London Symphony Orchestra and London Voices at Abbey Road Studios. In fact, in doing so, I also insisted that we use the exact same orchestral setup in Studio 1, the same microphones, in the same configuration, etc. as was used on the original Star Wars scores. I figured that if the only difference between the original scores and the Kinect: Star Wars score was myself, then control of the outcome was 100% in my hands and my ability to write. A good idea in theory - but it certainly turned up the heat by putting all the pressure on me.
You shared scoring duties on Kinect: Star Wars with another ASCAP composer, Kyle Newmaster. How did you decide which cues would be handled by which? Were there any parts of the game you desperately wanted to handle yourself?
I was given the task of writing and orchestrating two hours of action music, and six weeks to do it. So I knew from the beginning that in order to deliver this score on time, at the high level Microsoft and LucasArts (and I) insisted upon, I’d need help. Kyle and I have been close friends for years so we find it very easy to work with one another. We’d teamed up before to score the aforementioned Ryan vs. Dorkman II, so knowing Kyle’s abilities and love of the same music, it was a no-brainer asking him to join me in the task. As far as dividing the work: we’ve always tried to be honest with ourselves and each other as to what we think our strengths are. And where I believe Kyle and I are both capable of having written any one piece of music in Kinect: Star Wars, it made the process more fun to choose pieces based on our own strengths, and based on what inspired us individually. I had started the score by writing a theme for the planet Felucia. So I latched on to the idea of scoring all sections in the game that took place on this planet. Kyle was inspired by the idea of writing music for the planet Bespin, most famous for its "Cloud City" appearance in Empire Strikes Back. So I gave him total control of music for scenes that took place on Bespin.
What are some of the challenges you face when you’re writing for such an iconic franchise as Star Wars or Indiana Jones?
It certainly presents its fair share of musical challenges. Williams’s scores are expertly written, so writing to match his skill set was both exciting and challenging. But the largest challenge was balancing this excitement with fear and intimidation! I’m definitely inspired by the honor of being a part of franchises that are so great - and by getting to live inside of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones universes, which have both been a big part of my life for as long as I can remember. And these projects have allowed me to compose for the best musicians in Los Angeles, London and San Francisco - in the style of music that inspired me to become a composer in the first place. I don’t know of too many composers who wouldn’t consider writing for Star Wars to be the pinnacle experience. But on the flipside, it’s quite scary and intimidating. Not only did I have to pay homage to one of my favorite composers, as well as some of my favorite films, but the task also carried the frightening awareness of a built-in audience of literally a billion Star Wars and Indiana Jones fans, who are notoriously unafraid of letting you know what they think.
Do you feel like gaming has become more respectable than it used to be? If so, what do you think accounts for the change?
Absolutely. Much of this can be attributed to huge advances in technology. And thus, budgets have greatly increased to meet video games’ ever-growing technical capabilities and the audience’s demand for quality. Games have essentially become interactive films, in their appearance, story, content and, of course, music. Speaking from the music side of games: it used to be that due to the limited amount of data storage a game could house, the music had to be MIDI controlling eight-bit sounds. But now with greater storage, games can contain hours of mp3s or full-quality audio files. This has made it possible to pre-record the music - and with the cinematic quality of the visuals in games, it only seems fitting that the scores match in quality. Enter, the full orchestra. Now games have become a venue for composers to realize their large-scale orchestral scores, with seemingly endless budgets matching those of blockbuster films. I think it used to be taboo to be a film composer and score games. But lately the question most often asked of me by fellow film composers is "How do I get into games?"
Do you find that video game developers are a totally different breed than the folks in the Film/TV world? What sets them apart?
Yes and no. I have noticed that by comparison many of the folks in game development and publishing tend to be a little more "laid back." But I’ve certainly encountered my fair share of easy-going filmmakers as well. One similarity is that both are very serious about the quality of their product and the schedule to which its production must adhere. So as a composer, professionalism and ability to create under extreme pressure are still at the forefront of the job. Another observation from my own personal experience: in games, there appears to be a little less emphasis on the "bankability" of the composer’s name. Lately I’ve been trusted to compose, produce, orchestrate, budget, schedule and deliver what would be the film equivalent of a huge summer blockbuster score. Yet despite my proven ability to handle such a task, I think it’s still difficult for me to get hired on a large studio film. I’d of course be thrilled to be proven wrong! Michael Giacchino has certainly disproved this theory. The upside to this for me is that it proves I was hired on at least my first couple of games solely based on the publisher’s opinion of my music.
What do you think your 10-year-old self would say if he found out what you’re doing with your career today?
He’d probably first be a little bummed he wasn’t a fighter pilot. But once he got over that, I believe he’d be in awe! This has been a dream of mine since I saw E.T. in theaters when I was six years old. I was obsessed by how the movie made me feel. But where most viewers at that age might recall the character’s names, or their favorite scene, I latched onto every note of the music. After seeing it a couple times, I was able to teach myself to play every melody in the film on my dad’s old guitar. I think it was then that I chose composing, or that composing chose me - however you want to look at it. I’ve been a diehard Star Wars fan my whole life, so I think if you had told me as little as eight years ago what I’d be doing now, I’d be excited and probably not believe you. If you told my 10-year-old self...he’d freak out!
Visit Gordy Haab on the web: www.gordyhaab.com